This day arrives each year, and, even though I am aware of how time works, each recursion knocks me off my feet.
Sometimes it rains, occasionally it’s sunny (rarely), but most years it either snows heavily or deep frost swallows the world. It is late winter, after all; and, in the mountains, late winter is still hard winter.
This year it’s snowing, and there is some mercy in that. My mind catches on each thick flake as it rushes to the ground, vying to outrun its brethren. Then another, and another, there’s no space between snowflakes for thoughts or memory; guilt or regret.
The place looks good, I say. A little woodier than I had imagined, with the paneling and floorboards, but Nina certainly loved the inn. See, that’s what happens when I peel my eyes away from the dance of falling snow. My thoughts intrude.
“Excuse me, sir” a deep man’s voice says. I’m almost startled off the window seat, and I need a moment to catch my breath and steady my heartbeat.
Isn’t it strange how the intrusion of another person can sometimes startle us so? If I’d turned around and been face to face with a cat, I wouldn’t have minded. If it were a wolf, or bear, I’d be scared stiff, but not startled. I wouldn’t have given off an embarrassingly high-pitched noise which cut off at the middle. Why do other people have this effect on us?
“Yes, hello! Welcome! You’ll have to forgive me, I was certain it would only be the maintenance crew and I tonight. You’ve made it all the way up here in this weather?”
“Yes. My wife and I would like a room, please, if there is vacancy.”
He shifts a little, and sure enough, a petite woman is standing behind him, as if materialized from thin air.
Of course, it’s easy finding them a room as the inn is empty. The snowstorm was announced through all channels, and no one else ventured being caught on the mountain, or being marooned here until it stopped.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir” I say, when he hands me his credit card. “Our network is out, we can’t process credit card requests tonight. I’m sure it will be sorted by morning, it always is, but, unless you also have cash, I’m going to have to hold on to your IDs until tomorrow.”
The man fixes his eyes on his wife for a long while, like he’d forgotten what he wanted to say.
“Oh, yes,” he replies, finally turning back to me. “We didn’t have money.”
His wife nods, and she maneuvers to remove a bracelet which she places on the reception desk.
“What’s that, sir? You don’t have cash?” I ask, trying to ignore the glistening jewelry in front of me.
“Please,” he says, “accept this guaranty until payment is made.”
I want to protest, but I spot the hallmark of twenty-four-carat gold on the piece and estimate its value far above our one-night rate. Besides, I can’t turn them away in the storm, so, either way, they’re spending the night in the inn. I lock the bracelet in the safe beneath the desk, together with the week’s cash earnings.
After giving them their key, I return to the window. Dark is settling around the sparkling hills, each sliver of falling snow fighting to keep the night away. Each pure white speckle thinking it’ll be the one to dissolve the blackness draping the world. But, even though the mounds of snow remain visible against the night, the rest of the view tunes out. Night comes for everyone, in the end. Even the trees and the mountains.
Since my unexpected visitors have settled in the lounge, I grab a drink and join them. Conversation often helps to keep a tired mind from circling itself.
“So, what brings you so far up the mountain in this dreadful weather?” I ask, reclining on an old, burgundy armchair.
There was no conversation before I entered the room, and now they both look at me with strangely empty eyes. For a long second, no one says a word.
“Oh, we always come out this time of year,” the woman says eventually.
“It’s not the best season for it, you know? The snow’s beautiful and all, but you should see it in the spring. Like a painting coming to life, with the fresh leaves, the creek bubbling from up top.”
“You don’t like the winter,” the man says.
“It’s not my favorite, no.”
Hellen, from the cleaning staff, crosses the lounge towards the stairs and, before she heads up, she turns to me.
“I’m done for the day, if you need anything I’ll be in my room. But, please, try to get some shuteye yourself. Goodnight, Jim.”
She turns on the spot and climbs up the stairs. It would have been polite to address our guests as well, but I suppose politeness isn’t in her job description.
“You despise winter,” the man continues, ignoring the interruption, “yet you remain in this land where winter holds longest.”
“Well, I - my wife and - ex-wife -”
“You are bound to this place,” the woman says. “Love can bind, and duty. But none as well as death.”
A whirlwind of ice flashes in my mind, so vivid I can taste the flakes in my mouth and my skin stings where the frozen particles penetrate. The worst snowstorm in a decade. Eight years to this day, exactly.
I’m not sure what to answer this eerie woman, standing straight backed on one of the antique wooden chairs Nina picked out all those years ago.
“My ex-wife and I, Nina, used to love trekking up here in our youth. When the land became available, we didn’t hesitate.”
“Yet, only you have stayed behind, buried under the snow.”
Buried, yes, under the cold, unyielding mounds of frost. Painless, soundless, lightless. Hopeless.
“I wouldn’t say buried.”
In the otherwise empty lounge, barely any sound comes through. The faint, far away whirring of the kitchen refrigerator, the occasional clicking on and off of the espresso machine. An intangible echo of howling winds outside, making their way between the peaks.
“Part of you left this place,” the woman goes on, “and part of you died. And you are stuck between the two.”
I stare at the couple in front of me, the silence of the inn pressing down on us. I’m not angry. Many locals know the story and use it to excite the tourists.
“My – Nina – used to love the folklore of this land. Do you know, it’s said that a spirit haunts these mountains, and on the last night of winter it tries to lure travelers out in the snow. Collecting as many souls as it can before spring fills the ridges. It’s said, the more people fall victim to the spirit, the stronger it will be, year after year impersonating those it has taken.”
“But what really are spirits? What could be worse than our own fears, misgivings and regret? What power should they yield, worse than our own memory?”
“She’d loved telling that story to guests, loved telling it to our daughter too. Eight years ago, almost to the hour, my little girl walked out that door in the middle of an implacable storm to look for ghosts.”
“We never found the body. Not even the bones.”
After a long break the man says, “We know where the bones are,” and I am shocked. Shocked by what he said, but strangely also by his presence, as if I’d forgotten I wasn’t talking to myself.
He looks at my face, but somehow his gray gaze doesn’t reach my eyes. If eyes are the window to the soul, this man is a damp cellar.
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve seen the bones on our travels, very near here. We can take you there, it will be short, and then you will know.”
I wait for a moment and then stand.
“All right, I’m going to call it a night. Feel free to stay up as long as you like, and I will see you in the morning.”
My foot is almost on the first step when the man speaks again.
“There is a necklace. Golden with a pink heart as pendant.”
I grab my coat and follow the strangers into the night. Out here, the blowing wind covers all other sound, making conversation impossible.
We have lanterns, and I see theirs bobbing up and down ahead, amidst snow mounds. Mounds that were once rocks, trees, hills. It’s all the same, altered by winter into an unknowable labyrinth. I watch my every step, will each foot to rise one more time.
There is only snow behind me, only snow ahead. The cold is seeping through my shoes, my improper clothes. I don’t even have gloves and the punishing air is making it harder to grasp the lantern. My socks are sodden, and ice is gathering in my hair. Why don’t I have a hat?
I don’t remember exactly why I’m out here. Yes, I do. I’m looking for my daughter. Oh my God, I have to find her or she’ll freeze to death on the mountain. Only… only that’s already happened. Eight years ago, to the hour.
Lifting my eyes, I realize I am alone. There is no one holding a light up ahead, and the inn is too far behind to spot. The snow is coming down harder, the wind blowing the flakes directly into my eyes. I can barely see my own feet.
I try to follow in my own footsteps back to safety, but the storm is covering them up fast. Soon, I’m confused and can’t find the next step. I try to orient myself, to keep the same course, but I don’t recognize any of the landscape, and I’m suddenly feeling so tired. I need to catch my breath, just for a moment.
My muscles ache and burn, my lungs are rugged. Tears are freezing on my face, and I close my eyes for just a moment. Is this what my baby felt?
When a light shines bright right into my pupils, I have no idea where I am. Men clad in red, with faces hidden in black masks, haul me unto a stretcher and flakes settle on my nose and cheeks. They feel warm and soft and taste of vanilla.
It feels like no time at all before I’m lying in a bed at the inn. Helen, the maid, beside me.
“I called the rescue team, when I couldn’t find you inside anywhere. I figured you went outside to the power box, or something, and fell on the ice. Thank Heavens you were near the inn, or they wouldn’t have gone further out in this storm.”
“Jim, were you trying to-?”
“No. Thank you for saving me. I honestly don’t know what I was doing out there.”
When she leaves my room, and the warm embrace of blankest comforts my body and lulls me to sleep, a thought pops into my head. The tourists. They’re still out there.
I sprint to the reception phone to call back the rescue team, but, just as I touch the handset, another thought comes to me.
I bend and open the safe beneath the desk, combination known only by me. Of course, there is no bracelet, only the cash collected since our last bank deposit. Not a cent is missing.